In engineering parlance, roundabouts "calm traffic." The term has a loose, devil-may-care ring to it, unlike "stoplight," which sounds authoritarian, even rude.
Sonoma County would seem a logical fit for roundabouts, which are touted as safer, cheaper and more environmentally friendly than your standard-issue intersection governed by a stoplight or sign.
And yet, few issues spark more controversy around these parts than roundabouts, with Cotati voters going so far as to ban them last November, likely making the city the first in the nation -- maybe even the world -- to take that extraordinary step.
"I'm sad to say that's true to the best of my knowledge," said Cotati Mayor Mark Landman, who opposed the ballot measure that led to the ban.
Undeterred, traffic planners in other Sonoma County cities and at the county level are pressing forward with plans to install roundabouts at several key intersections.
That includes, in unincorporated areas, at Highway 116 at Mirabel Road in Forestville and at Arnold Drive at Agua Caliente Road at the entrance to the Hanna Boys Center in Sonoma. A roundabout also is being considered for the three-way intersection of Highways 116 and 121/12 in Carneros, south of Sonoma.
Tom O'Kane, interim co-director of the county's Transportation and Public Works Department, called Cotati's ban on roundabouts "really foolish" and "extremely short-sighted."
He said he has never heard arguments against roundabouts that "make any sense."
Nevertheless, there are many in the county and around the nation who view roundabouts with suspicion, as if they were a plot to import European driving habits and force Americans to trade their Fords for Fiats.
The modern roundabout usually features a one-lane traffic circle in which vehicles move counterclockwise around a center circular island, entering and exiting to the right. The motorist entering the roundabout usually must yield to traffic already circling.
They are not to be confused with the smaller traffic circles that Santa Rosa installed, and then tore out, on Humboldt Street and on a street in O'Kane's northeast neighborhood.
He called those circles "dangerous" and said he was surprised "someone didn't get killed."
He said the county's roundabouts differ in that they are proposed to be about 100 feet wider than what he called a "dinky" traffic circle. He said this will give motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians much more room to navigate the structure.
"Even Caltrans, which is not the most innovative group I've come across, has roundabouts, and they work very well," he said.
Dan St. John, Petaluma's public works and utilities director, said the biggest obstacle to Americans embracing the concept is the fact that it's something new and different.
"We're human. We resist change," he said.
St. John said he's not heard any complaints about Petaluma's roundabouts. But that doesn't mean everyone there is pleased with them.
From his home overlooking a roundabout on Petaluma Boulevard South, UPS worker Ken Jamison this week described hearing often the screech of tires, cussing and other auditory evidence of road rage.
With its proximity to Highway 101, the roundabout is more heavily traveled during commute hours.
"There will be accidents," Jamison predicted. "It's only a matter of time."
It was apparent after only a few minutes observing traffic flow through the roundabout that not all motorists felt comfortable with the design.